I’ve mentioned before that after I stopped gambling, I took up writing as one way of filling the void left in my life by the pokies. I wrote a lot of short stories, publishing them on a website called the Short Story Workshop and getting feedback from other amateur writers. I was terrible at first but gradually improved (thankfully).
One of the last stories that I wrote and published on that site was called Quiet Desperation. It’s fiction, but it is based on my experiences as a problem gambler. I wrote this back in 1999, but it still gives me a chill reading it again.
There’s an insistent buzz, peeling your sleeping mind apart, dragging you headlong into the land of the living. It’s morning, your alarm clock’s been screaming for twenty minutes and you’ve got to go to work.
You swing your legs over the edge of the bed and sit for a moment. Exhaustion drips off your clammy skin and hits the floor, the stench of weariness working its way into everything you own. Sleep doesn’t refresh any more, your dreams are no longer havens for your troubled mind and yesterday hovers expectantly, knowing that you are his.
You head for the bathroom.
As steaming water sluices over your head, shoulders and beyond, you do the sums for the first time today. The numbers you created last night, the ones that let you finally get to sleep for a few meagre moments, have fled when faced with the honesty of morning. By the time you’ve dried off and dragged your clothes on, you’re no closer to an answer.
You spend a couple of minutes in front of the mirror, practicing your smile, rolling your shoulders until you can once more pass for human. Close enough. Time to face the world.
You head for the kitchen, open the door, and Act I begins…..
“Morning hon,” you say, a smile on your face, a spring in your step. “Sleep well?”
Your wife looks up from the paper, the first cup of coffee for the day. She smiles. You can see she loves you and Christ you love her, desperately, and the screw turns another quarter inch. “Not bad sweetheart,” she replies, offering her lips up to be kissed. Which you do. And the numbers roll on in the back of your head. “Couldn’t sleep again last night?” she inquires, turning back to the paper.
“Nah, work’s really weighing on my mind at the moment,” you say as you make yourself a cup of tea. Four sugars, anything to get you through the morning. “Tell you what, I’ll be glad when I get this bloody project finished. It’s killing me!” Another smile to show how strong you are, nothing bothers you, and she’s reassured.
Somehow you stumble through breakfast and make it out the door, into the car and off to the station. Draw the curtains on Act I, intermission will be for approximately 45 minutes, Act II will commence when you get to work. In the meantime, it’s time to crunch those numbers again. It’s another eight days to payday, if you miss this credit payment they won’t mind, you can make it up next fortnight. Skip lunch for another week (so what’s new?), that should save another fifty bucks. That should just about do it. Eight more days of grace.
As you sit on the train, decisiveness grips you. Enough is enough! You’ve had enough of this psychotic merry-go-round, it’s time to give up the gold ring and just step off. If you do it now, you can start repairing the damage and no one need ever know. It’s only a few thousand bucks anyway.
Only twenty three thousand.
You get to work at 7:30 and slip into your second suit again, the one made of smiles and swagger. Just an actor on the stage, that’s you. Only difference is, you give the performance of your life every day and there ain’t going to be no Oscar at the end of this little play.
You move effortlessly through the morning, buoyed by your decision. It’s so easy to forget that you made the same one yesterday, and the day before that. This time it’s different; this time it’s for real.
But at about 11:30, the same thing happens again. Out of nowhere a voice whispers in the back of your mind, a voice that sounds suspiciously like your own, and it can’t be ignored.
“What if you win?” it murmurs. “One win could get you back on track, make things so much easier. Then you can stop. All you need is one win.”
You don’t fight the suggestion, because it’s what you want. Besides, you know you can’t pay back everything you owe without coming clean, not unless you can win some of it back. And you’re due for a win, too. It’s time the odds rolled in your favour for once. Like they did at the start.
And coming clean isn’t really an option, is it? You love your wife, God knows you don’t want to hurt her, and something like this wouldn’t just break her heart. It’d tear it apart, and there’s no way you could do that to her. No way.
It’ll be easy, you tell yourself, and the little voice fades away. His work here is done. You start thinking of winning combinations that you could spin up, and you somehow manage to forget that there’s no way you can make those reels stop the way you want them to. “Easy,” you say out loud, and a smile appears on your face.
This time it’s genuine.
Finally both hands are in line, straight up, and you slip on your jacket and out of the building. It’s only a seven minute walk to your regular haunt, and you light a cigarette, sucking back smoke as your stride lengthens. The closer you get, the more assured you feel until suddenly you’re there, walking through the glass doors and into the dim room beyond. The place is filled with music, made by a hundred different machines, all performing for their patrons like mechanical table-top dancers, promising rewards that can’t possibly be had.
But you don’t see through the deception. Your eyes are coated by the dust left by the passing of thousands of dollar coins through these slots. You slap a fifty down on the counter, grab your bucket of change and prowl the room for the mistress of your choice.
You soon find her. Her seat is empty, her screen unmoving and you can’t resist the temptation, that deadly siren call.
Nor do you want to.
In those first few a minutes a peace descends upon you. This is your time, no one else’s. You’re pumping dollars through the slot, thumbing all the right buttons and win or lose, it’s up to you.
And winning and losing is the essence of your life now; you do both, side by side, as the minutes turn to hours. Penguins and polar bears turn cartwheels on the screen, lining up in combinations that could make or break your soul. You lose, you win, you lose again. You change machines and start over; this is no time to start being faithful. Kings and queens, wild card draws, one machine even has jumping beans that roam around the screen when you get it just right, paying out a small fortune. But the end result is still the same. All the money you’ve poured in, transformed into credits on the screen, and who cares about losing credits? De-fiscalised, just as you’re dehumanised, and in moments it’s gone.
But it’s not just the first fifty, is it? How many trips did you make to the cash machine in the foyer? Doesn’t matter now, you’ve drawn your limit for today. So that would be five hundred bucks, yes?
You trudge back to work, your thoughts in turmoil. How could you do it? you scream in your head. Five hundred bucks! You couldn’t even afford to buy lunch for Christ’s sake! Now what are you going to do? Inspiration strikes. You’re only two hundred dollars over on your credit card, you could take another four hundred out in a cash advance before you go home. Then you’d only be a hundred down! You can manage that. And you can always put it back next pay. It’s a good thing you upped your credit limit a couple of months back, once you’d paid out your card after that big win. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the increased overdraft to play with.
But you don’t dwell on that. Because no one knows you had that big win, there was no one you could tell. And where is it now? You’re still overdrawn, you’re in worse shape than ever. Where is it now?
You know where it is.
You get back to work and slip in through the fire escape stairwell. You’ve been gone for over three hours. As soon as your colleagues realise you’re back, they start coming around with phone messages and questions about work. Your boss pops her head around the cubicle wall and asks where you’ve been? You tell her you went to the downtown office after a quick lunch to follow up on the Carlson estimate, and time got away from you. She nods once, and leaves without a word.
You should get an Oscar. Or so you think.
You spend the rest of the afternoon (all fifty minutes of it) working through your personal budget on your PC. You alternatively curse yourself for what you’ve done, and think about what you’d need to spin up to get it all back. By the time you’re ready to leave for the day, you’ve moved, manipulated and manhandled the figures enough to put your mind at rest. You haven’t hit rock bottom yet, though it’s close. Time to call it quits. But if you could win back that five hundred tomorrow, then you’ll have cancelled out today’s fiasco and everything will be all right. With that positive thought in mind, you head home.
After another train ride spent staring out the window and seeing dollar signs before your eyes, you arrive home. You’re worn out, not from a hard day’s work but from swinging from one emotional extreme to another, over and over again. Your wife is already home from work, she’s had the kettle on and is making you a cup of tea just as you walk in the door. She knows your routine so well.
Like hell she does.
“How was your day?” she asks, and you tell her it was busy. “I tried to ring you after lunch, but no one could find you.” Just the faintest hint of concern in her voice, not suspicion. not yet. You feed her the Carlson line and she nods. She knows you’re a hard-working man, but it’s you she married, it’s you she’s interested in, not your job. If you tell her you were busy, that’s all she wants to know. And you’ve made the most of that, haven’t you?
All evening you’re distracted, just like you always seem to be these days. After tea she tells you there’s a good movie on at the local cinema, she’s really like to see it, how about tonight? You hide your panic, you hadn’t figured an extra twenty bucks into your war-time budget, and you tell her that you’re tired, you wouldn’t be able to concentrate or enjoy the film. Maybe on the weekend. She’s disappointed, but doesn’t push it. Thank Christ for that.
Finally you head to bed. She’s already asleep, you’ve been playing a video game for the last two hours, anything to turn your mind off for a while. You slide quietly beneath the covers and lie there, wide awake at midnight. Sleep is nowhere close. In darkness you run through the numbers again and again, trying to work out some way to pay everything back without blowing the whistle, but it’s impossible. It’s like fighting with your wife in bed, things always appear worse in the dead of night than they do in the cold clear light of day. Except that in this case, worse is actually the truth.
Eventually, in an act of quiet desperation, you resort to fantasy. You turn on to the daydream that is the only thing that might let you slide into oblivion. Imagine winning the lottery… you could pay everything back and it would only be a drop in the ocean. You’d still have plenty of money left, you could buy a house and stop renting, get a second car, hell you could even start saving some money! You haven’t been able to do that for almost two years now. The fantasy works, your breathing slows as you trick your mind into believing that you’re rich and you drift into sleep.
Your dreams are waiting for you, places where your subconscious has free reign to parade your deception and make you sick to the very root of your soul. No rest for the wicked; no rest for you.
And morning is only a few hours away…